Borrowed cells could restore life to dead heart muscle

Monday, November 18, 2002

CHICAGO -- Doctors testing a new treatment for heart attacks said Sunday they have restored life to seemingly dead heart muscle by seeding it with cells borrowed from patients' own thigh muscles or bones.

The idea is to find an alternative to transplants for people whose hearts are so damaged that they fail to pump blood forcefully enough. This condition, called heart failure, is a growing health problem that afflicts an estimated 5 million people in the United States alone.

Two years ago, a French doctors described a novel alternative: He put millions of immature skeletal muscle cells into the badly damaged heart of a 72-year-old man. His heart began to pump more powerfully, although it was unclear whether the benefit came from the new cells or from coronary bypass surgery he received at the same time.

That physician, Dr. Philippe Manasche of Bichat Hospital in Paris, has now repeated the approach on 10 patients, and similar experiments are being conducted by teams in the United States, Germany, England and Poland.

Preliminary but encouraging data on these experiments were reported Sunday at the annual scientific meeting in Chicago of the American Heart Association. Doctors said the shifted cells can live inside the heart's dead scar tissue and show at least some signs of contracting like the original heart muscle.

"This is quite exciting and definitely new," said Dr. Timothy Gardner of the University of Pennsylvania, who is not involved in the studies.

For now, all that researchers can say for sure is that the transferred cells take root and flourish in dead areas of the heart. Whether they make the heart pump more forcefully remains to be proven, although researchers say they see encouraging evidence this may happen.

"The results so far support the hypothesis that these cells will do some good. It gives us a reason to go on," said Dr. Francis Pagani of the University of Michigan.

Pagani is working with Dr. Nabil Dib of the Arizona Heart Institute, whose team tested the approach on 16 patients getting either coronary bypasses or temporary pumps to keep them alive until they could have heart transplants.

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